Sel de Salies-de-Béarn comes from the pretty spa town on the Gave de Pau, nicknamed ‘Salt City’. A mighty underground source, seven times saltier than the sea, once spewed out enough water to make the whole area a saline swamp.
Unsung engineers of the Bronze Age drained it for farmland, but it was probably the Romans who first found a way to put the waters to good use: for centuries nearly everyone lived from salt, collecting the water in great kettles, boiling it down, and carting the precious mineral off to the warehouse. Undercut by competition from Languedoc sea salt in the 19th century, Salies found new life from the spring by becoming a spa.
But its salt is still important. The saline spring is pumped into giant poêles à sel and heated to leave the crystals, the gros sel used in the salage (salting) of the prize local hams, jambon de Bayonne and jambon de Kintoa.
They also harvest gourmet fleur de sel— the fine petals of salt that form on the surface of the poêles à sel.
In town, you can soak in the saline spa and visit the Musée du Sel et des Traditions Béarnaises
Images by Lorant-Heilbronn, Vincent, Marie-Laure KACZALA